Colleges prepare for incoming freshmen with high school learning loss

Mural at Sacramento State (LARRY GORDON/EDSOURCE TODAY)

Beyond the usual efforts to get new students off to a good start, college and university campuses in California and across the nation this fall face special challenges in welcoming freshmen who have not been in a real classroom for a year and a half.

Campuses say they are concerned that many freshmen have suffered some or even significant learning loss as a result of all the remote high school instruction during the pandemic. Colleges and faculty plan to provide extra tutoring, more academic counseling, some changes in courses and, if necessary, a slower teaching pace at first to help students rebuild their academic and social strengths.

“Of course, they are not going to have the skills they were supposed to have. There will be some gaps in their learning from senior year in high school. We have to get ready for that,” said Tina Jordan, Sacramento State University’s assistant vice president for strategic success initiatives.

That campus is expanding the number of one-credit supplemental courses led by upper division students who are paid to help freshmen understand difficult material in general education classes, including math, U.S. history, economics and biology. The number of those supplemental classes is expected to double to 60 this fall, funded with federal relief money.

More tutors, both graduate and undergraduate students, will be embedded into Sacramento State courses that have anticipated high fail rates like biology and U.S. history. In addition, more residential halls will offer tutoring services during evening hours, she said.

Students will have to readjust to in-person classes after being online for so long and possibly having had cameras off, Jordan said. “They are excited and really want to come to college but are afraid of not knowing what the expectations are,” she explained.

The efforts to overcome learning loss will be helped by anticipated full or partial return to in-person classes. Policies on reopening are in flux and are complicated by vaccination requirements at some schools, such as the 10 University of California campuses, and by local Covid-19 infection rates. But even in courses that remain online or in hybrid form, faculty say they will be working to fill in students’ skills gaps.

Some students may have rusty computational skills because they skipped a fourth year of high school math rather than take it remotely. And given the emphasis on short written responses in online classes, composition skills may be weak as well.

Professors at UC Riverside are “waiting with bated breath” to see how the students are academically and emotionally after the pandemic, said Jennifer Brown, UC Riverside’s vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. While some students will show learning loss, she anticipates that most will be resilient: “My gut tells me they may need a little bit of extra support, but they will be able to bounce back.”

Anticipating that fewer students will be ready to jump into advanced material right out of high school, UC Riverside is expanding English and math tutoring in its summer bridge program some students take and is adding fall sections for more elementary math and writing courses than in other years.

The campus also plans to spend some of its federal relief funds to hire 50 additional tutors and supplemental instructors to help students review material in small groups and prepare for tests and projects. And to create a more comfortable place for students to study away from dorms and libraries, its academic resource center is adding more moveable study furniture with headsets and other amenities.

Some students say they are worried about starting college but hope for the best.

Erin Soohoo, 17, graduating high school and heading to Pasadena City College (COURTESY OF ERIN SOOHOO)

For example, Erin Soohoo, who recently graduated from South Pasadena High, said online classes allowed her to slack off and slump academically. “It wasn’t because the classes were super hard and I was struggling. It was because it was online. I didn’t really go to class often, I wasn’t really paying attention, and I wasn’t doing my work as much,” she told EdSource.  As a result, she is concerned that she will start at Pasadena City College with learning losses in math and science, important subjects for her likely engineering major.

Soohoo plans to revive strong study habits and classroom participation, hoping to eventually transfer to UCLA. “I’m a lot more motivated for college rather than high school,” she said but added that she is still “worried that the old me will come back.”

Similarly, Jeffrey Lindner is concerned about starting at San Francisco State University, where he will major in cinema. A graduate of the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, he wants to end the isolation of online classes and succeed in his college classes. He intends to work hard but hopes that colleges and universities recognize that many students like him may need some assistance.

“I hope that (colleges) will recognize that we’re coming out of a pandemic, and they need to realize that and have sympathy and understanding for the Class of 2021. That’s all I ask for. That’s literally all,” Lindner said. “This is a different year. We’ve had it the worst, that’s the thing. I’m scared that people are just going to forget that the pandemic ever happened because we’re back and we go back to a normal schedule.”

Faculty will hold a special role in creating an environment where students feel welcome back on campuses. Professors are planning to adopt “a more empathetic approach on helping students” given the disruptions of the past years, UC Riverside’s Brown said.

Jeffrey Lindner, 18, in gear for his graduation from Orange County School of the Arts (COURTESY OF JEFFREY LINDNER)

Professors may not change the syllabus and the amount of homework and tests in their classes. But some will proceed more slowly at first and approach freshmen with “more patience and an understanding that students coming in this fall might not be coming with the same academic preparation as they may have in previous falls,” said Ernesto Guerrero, director of academic advising at CSU Channel Islands. More tutors will be placed in classrooms and will be available online or in person for seven days a week, officials said.

The campus’s orientation for freshmen, a two-day online affair this summer, will advise students to take the right and right number of courses to make good progress toward graduation. In addition, a one-day “boot camp” for all freshmen just before classes start will offer campus tours and review of resources with “a focus on transitioning back to an in-person learning environment,” Guerrero said.

Julie Glass, mathematics department chair at CSU East Bay, said she anticipates that some students will arrive with “bigger gaps in their content mastery” as compared with previous freshmen. Beyond any struggles with online classes, some students may have faced challenges due to family stresses and obligations stemming from Covid-19, she said. Faculty will keep that in mind as they seek to rebuild students’ math skills and help freshmen get adjusted to the new university setting, she said.

The campus is changing one important way it helps students in math. In a reform implemented a few years ago, students who need extra support are placed in a so-called co-requisite class that includes an extra two hours a week for review and other assistance. Those students will stay together as a group in both the main lecture class and the support sessions, a change from past practice that mixed students from various main classes and professors in the additional hours. This unifying change will allow for more effective use of class time and help students at the same spot in their math curriculum to learn together, Glass said.

Like many other community colleges, Long Beach City College will offer more tutoring — including some available round the clock and on weekends through online programs and more supplemental instruction in elementary math courses and others. Overall, faculty members are being urged more than ever to explain course expectations clearly as the term begins and to inform students how to seek assistance, according to Kathy Scott, executive vice president of academic affairs.

The goal is to make students feel welcome, whether they struggled in online high school classes or not. Professors will be “mindful of what our students have been through in the past year,” she said.

Students who typically wrote short statements for online classes during high school now will have to master longer compositions in college, according to Dabney Lyons, an English composition lecturer at CSU East Bay and at Los Medanos Community College in nearby Pittsburg. So she will probably start her freshman writing classes with some short, low-stakes assignments to determine their abilities before tackling longer essays.

While she is preparing for the prospect of learning losses, she expects it won’t “be as big an issue for many students as we are afraid of. Students are pretty adaptable,“ she said.

Her course at East Bay will be a hybrid, with both in-person and online sessions every week. The in-person portion will be key for building rapport among classmates and improving writing skills, she said.

“I try to be warm, open and authentic online. But there is only so much you can do with a camera and through printed texts on a screen. A lot gets lost,” she said. In person, it is easier “to let them know I am actually there for them, and I am truly committed to their success.”

Mia Alva, a sophomore at Cal State Los Angeles, and Bella Arnold, a sophomore at Cal State Long Beach, interns with EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps, contributed to this article.  

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